Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"
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From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1511 (11/24/02)
"What we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why, then we rack the value; then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us."
I have a stack of great stuff to review this week, but I don't guarantee I'll get to any of it. I'm brimming with excitement over this year's Mid-Ohio-Con, but I'm not sure I'll be able to sneak in any plugs for that most excellent event being held November 30 and December 1 in Columbus. Then again...
What has happened this week is that a topic has crawled into my head and won't let go of that portion of my brain that controls my typing fingers until I write about it. This is usually a cause for grave concern among my editors, but, relax, kids, I'll still be writing about comic books. Specifically about buying comic books. Which, I trust, isn't too off-topic for a publication called COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE. Let me set this up for you.
It seems that, sooner or later, no matter where I work, I'm asked questions about my place of employment which presuppose that I know a whole lot more than I do. When I worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer three decades ago, I was often asked why the newspaper would cover this story and not that story, run this editorial view or that one, and if pro wrestling was for real. It was lost on my interrogators that I was a) still in my teens; b) a copy boy whose main function was to carry stuff from *here* to *there*; c) in the midst of my first serious relationship; d) more interested in comic books than Cleveland, or, for that matter, the world, and e) every bit as clueless as I looked. Five reasons for my ignorance. Take your pick. After a few years, only d) was even remotely operative. I could answer the questions, but rarely chose to do so.
When I went to work for Marvel Comics in late 1972, the trend continued. I knew more about Marvel's operations than I had known about the Plain Dealer's, but I wasn't privy to the reasons behind every decision, nor was I acquainted with all the behind-the-scenes stuff from before my time. Had I known then what I know now, I'd likely have done some things differently--Isn't that almost always the case?--but I still wouldn't have answered every question posed by a curious reader.
The trend continued at DC and every other publisher I've ever worked for. It continues today at our most beloved CBG, where the question of late has been:
"What's with all this CGC and auction stuff?"
My answer is:
Bad news tends to get more coverage than good news, which is why "If it bleeds, it leads" is still true today. The paper was in thrall to the rich and powerful. It's not for real, which I know because I watched the wrestlers practice; they even gave me samples of the fake-blood capsules they used.
I'm just playing with you. I'm actually going to take a shot at your CGC and auction questions, albeit from the perhaps limited perspective of one who's not involved with either.
When Comics Guarantee Corporation started grading comic books professionally and slabbing them, I had the same knee-jerk reaction many of you did. When I started seeing the slabbed comics selling at much higher prices than they would normally bring, I wondered if the back-issue market was being taken away from the little guys who didn't have thousands of bucks to spend. When CBG started devoting considerable coverage to CGC prices and high-end auctions, I mocked my editors mercilessly.
Sidebar. I only mock my editors out of love. This is a time-tested educational tool. This also works with parents; mine are so much smarter now than they were when I was 16.
What's up with all the CGC and auction stuff? The buying of old comics has been affected by CGC, its strict grading standards, and the high prices graded/slabbed comics are fetching at auctions and elsewhere. What affects the buying of old comics is certainly deserving of coverage in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE. It's a better fit than, say, the vengeful wrath of the Spectre being cover-featured in something called MORE FUN COMICS.
More to the point, "all that CGC and auction stuff" in CBG is hardly all that much. Studying the latest issue to arrive at Casa Isabella, 11% of the editorial pages had even the slightest mention of auctions, professional grading, or slabbing. That percentage is likely higher when there's a big auction on tap, and may seem too high to some readers, but doesn't come close to raising my personal hackles. It's just another part of the paper's overall coverage of the art form, hobby, and industry.
I have never bought or owned a slabbed comic book, nor have I any plans to slab any of the tens of thousands I have lying around here. That's not something I'm interested in at present, though I may find it of interest in the future. These are my comic books; I can do whatever I want to or with them.
That's why my knee no longer jerks when I hear about slabbed comic books, though I do still chuckle derisively when someone pays exorbitant prices for less-than-stellar bits of contemporary dross sealed in the equivalent of amber. It's the buyer's money and the seller's comic books. No concern of mine.
I often hear laments along the lines of "how can someone pay all that money for a comic they'll never read" and wonder how the lamenter can be so sure said comic book will never be read by its purchaser. The grading/slabbing testifies to the book's condition and assures the buyer of same; it doesn't prevent the book's owner from opening and enjoying his newly-purchased treasure. I suspect many of these books, expensive though they may be, were bought with just that in mind.
Yes, if the buyer decides to sell the comic in the future, and wants to get the best price, he will incur the expense of having it graded and slabbed again. That's a cost of doing business, which a buyer accepts or rejects as he sees fit.
Some collectors act as if these slabbed comic books are being taken forever out of their reach. Realistically, how many of them were ever in their reach in the first place?
I'd love to have some of the cool issues of MARVEL MYSTERY and PLANET COMICS from the Nicolas Cage collection. The ones catching my eye were doubtless auctioned for hundreds and even thousands of dollars each. I couldn't afford these comics even if they weren't slabbed. But, in a world of DC ARCHIVES and MARVEL MASTERWORKS, I won't assume that I'll never own these comics, or, at least, some reasonable facsimiles of them.
That's another reason my ears are mostly deaf to the piteous whimpers. I remember when the classic comics of the 1940s seemed beyond my reach. Now I own hardcover books reprinting the entire Milton Caniff run of TERRY AND THE PIRATES, all seven issues of Joe Simon's and Jack Kirby's BOYS RANCH, hundreds of Golden Age stories of Superman and Wonder Woman and the Spirit. Heck, I even own the first 100 issues of BATMAN on microfiche.
There is so much great material, past and present, available to today's buyers of comics that it's silly to get crazy over the relatively lilliputian number of comics which have been graded and slabbed. I can't begin to keep up with all the stuff I can afford to buy now, so why should it bother me that I can't buy Cage's copy of HOT ROD AND SPEEDWAY COMICS #2?
(I could devote another entire column to the terrific bargains to be found at comics shops and conventions, and on eBay and other websites. I got two-thirds of my now-complete collection of COSMO THE MERRY MARTIAN on eBay, restocked my diminished supply of BLACK LIGHTNING duplicates, and picked up dozens of older comics without busting my budget. That's gold in them electronic hills, and more than a little silver and bronze as well.)
So more power to Heritage Comics and the other comics auction outfits. I'm happy to see comics collectors or even those darned comics investors realize good prices on their offerings. Not only does it not dry up the supply of comics for me to read, but, there is always the possibility the publicity generated by these auctions will convince publishers to ride the interest by offering reprints of their classic material.
This is where I give a shout out to Jim Halperin, John Petty, and Ed Jaster of Heritage Comics for the comp copies of their most recent catalogs. The October package consisted of their 480-page, full-color main catalog featuring comics, original art, toys, and movie posters; the 98-page full-color catalog of the Nicholas Cage collection, done in collaboration with Jay Parrino's The Mint; and a CD-Rom version of both. I haven't cracked the bigger catalog yet and I have to wait for my kids to show me how to open the CD-Rom, but I did have a great time browsing the Cage catalog.
Not to belabor my relative poverty, but I'm not likely to take part in these auctions any time soon. It was still fun to look at the hundreds of covers shown, read the sometimes-witty descriptions of the books, and even pick up the odd bit of trivia. The catalogs cost $50, but, even if you don't buy anything--which I believe gets you some sort of rebate--you might consider that money well spent for the eye-candy and information.
For example, I didn't know that ADVENTURE COMICS #39 (1939) had the first mention of marijuana in a comics story until I read it here. Or that Holyoke's Cat-Man was reworked after his debut in CRASH COMICS and that the teen issues of his own title are scarce and in great demand. Or that Sol Brodsky, one of my first bosses in comics and a cherished mentor, had drawn several covers for the later issues of MARVEL MYSTERY.
Throughout the catalog, there are delightful insights into the comics shown. The entry for ADVENTURE COMICS #65 (1941), published before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, discusses the "lengths DC took to avoid using propaganda in their comics."
I laughed out loud at the cover of MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS #77 (1946), which portrays the Sub-Mariner with a head so big it could be a parade float. Likewise, the covers to MARVEL MYSTERY #82-89 (1947/1948), with their emphasis on beautiful heroines, appear to represent a conscious editorial decision to market these comics to a slightly older audience than previously.
This is where, to avoid writing many paragraphs praising the PLANET COMICS covers also included in this catalog, I direct you to the Heritage Comics website:
You'll be able to see those covers for yourself and find out anything else you want to know about the company and its upcoming auctions. Check it out.
Professional grading of comic books is here to stay. So are the mega-auctions. Both are part of the comics scene and, as such, deserve coverage in these pages. My acceptance of both means that I have to find new reasons to mock my editors, but that's something I can live with.
I mean, it's not like they make it difficult.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1511 [November 1, 2002], which was shipped October 14. If you've been enjoying these CBG reprints (which usually come with a good chunk of new material), feel free to show your appreciation via the handy "Tip the Tipster" link below.
My comments on slabbed comics and CBG brought this note from VINCE DeLANGE:
The reasons I have a problem with the coverage of CGC comics in CBG is because I believe CBG is actually promoting the concept, grading, prices and service. As obvious proof, read John Miller's response to a letter in issue 1510 [page 8] where he says "My best investment advice is to get them slabbed."
You certainly have some strong opinions on this subject...and it probably won't surprise you that I disagree with nearly all of them. Let me take a whack at them...
Mr. Investment Professional is also trying to sell a book that has always been an also-ran price guide and which now quotes CGC prices. Amazing!
I believe the CGC craze is perpetuated by a small percentage of dealers and collector/speculators. See the auction report on page 36 of issue 1511 where sellers are bidding on the same books they have listed for sale.
As a Licensed Investment Advisor for 20 years, I can tell you speculators are ALWAYS an accident waiting to happen. I said it when the stock market soared in 1998-2000 and with sports cards, pogs, Pokemon, Magic and even comics back in the early 1990's. These people are no good for comics any more than the nut bag I saw holding 50 issues of a #1 comic back in 1991 and who said "This is just like the stock market". I nearly soiled myself!
As a long time (15-year) CBG subscriber, I can also tell you they have also HYPED a lot of these so called sure things. There is a fine line between reporting and promoting and it is clear CBG has crossed this line.
Comic fans number probably less than a million people; these speculators/dealers probably under 50,000 (my guesses). The latter are a small percentage and when this folds up like the paper house it is, we will have 50,000 fewer/poorer fans.
I predict the percentage of slabbed comics opened up is very low. If you can read a good unslabbed for comic for one cent on the dollar of your slabbed book, why open it? Especially after paying 50 times its value.
Remember my letter in five or ten years. At the rate comics are getting slabbed, the business will dry up by then and many will once again be HOLDING THE BAG!
I don't believe CBG is promoting slabbed books any more than they "promote" anything which is currently generating interest in the hobby. Your passionate response to my column proves that fans are talking and thinking about this.
Gee, if I'm a reader of the hobby's leading newspaper, I would expect its editors to have opinions on such matters. What's wrong with Miller giving advice to readers who are contemplating slabbing their books? Doesn't it come with the territory?
Re: THE STANDARD CATALOG OF COMIC BOOKS. For my purposes, I'm finding it every bit as useful as THE OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE. In fact, of late, I've been using the STANDARD a bit more. However, I rarely use either one for pricing. If and when I start selling off my accumulation of comics, I'll probably use one or the other as a guide...and just as a guide. Hype aside, neither one is the final answer on anything.
Your "smoking gun" on page 36 shoots blanks, at least so far as culpability on CBG's part. Miller accurately reports what could be considered cross-bidding.
As to the alleged cross-bidding itself, if I'm in the business of selling old comic books, why shouldn't I bid on a book I think I might be able to resell for a high price? Even if I am currently selling a copy of the same issue?
I recently bought 25 copies of an Isabella-written comic book because they were on sale. I'll probably give most of them away, but I'll make a profit on those I sell. Am I only allowed to have one copy of any one issue of any comic for sale? Because, if I see this issue on sale again, at the price I paid for these copies, I'm gonna buy some more.
I've been writing for CBG for somewhere in the neighborhood of two decades now. My take on their coverage is that they report on the trends...even those I personally think are stupid...and often warn their readers about the dangers of speculating and speculator-driven prices. Do you blame your local newspaper for any bad news it reports on?
Sorry, Mr. Licensed Investment Advisor, but Mr. Columnist Guy here thinks your accusations are unfounded, your characterization of reporting as hype is erroneous, and your predictions on how many slabbed comics are opened are as much speculation as my own guess. And you're still missing the point of my column.
The owners of comic books can do whatever they want to or with them. When I acquire a complete run of the second Black Lightning series, I burn the issues I didn't write.
You don't like slabbed comics? Then don't slab your comics. Simple as that.
You don't like the high prices they sell for? Then don't buy them. Still simple.
Every month, PREVIEWS offers hundreds of pages of new comics you can buy at cover price. Every comic-book store has boxes upon boxes of unslabbed older comics.
Unless you're Bill Gates, you'll run out of money long before you run out of relatively inexpensive comics to buy.
I'll be back on Tuesday with more stuff.
<< 11/23/2002 | 11/24/2002 | 11/26/2002 >>
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THE "TONY" SCALE
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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